Alexander Binsteiner presents his theory on why an Alpine copper-smithing and trading community disappeared some 5,200 years ago, and traces where they subsequently re-appeared. Using crucial geological and lithic evidence he explains the reasons for his conclusions.
In the Neolithic and into the Bronze-Age, stilt houses were a feature of settlements commonly found around the Alpine lake region of Europe. Susceptible to general flooding, there was also a risk of massive rock landslides crashing into the lakes, setting off devastating tsunamis.
This is what may have happened around 3,200 BC on the Lake of Mondsee (Lake Constance), resulting in the exodus of a metalworking community that lived there.
When the site of this particular settlement was excavated in the 19th century, 595 stone axes and studded battleaxes, 451 arrowheads along with 12 copper axes and six daggers were discovered. These items represented highly sought-after status symbols, and would never have been left behind intentionally, unless of course the settlement had been abandoned as the result of a disaster.
Well preserved foods such as charred hazelnuts, grain and pieces of apples were also found in the mud, and if a tsunami had been the culprit it would explain why they were quickly deprived of oxygen and thus had survived so well.
The people of the Mondsee Lake settlement were relatively advanced within a cultural group that straddled the new metal age. It is likely that they arrived from the Balkans around 3,600 BC and settled in an area with a connection to the supply of copper ore and the potential for excellent trading links. They had metallurgical skills that were rare in Europe for the time, in a transitional period known as the Chalcolithic. Copper is a relatively soft, easy to work metal, so they prospected the mountains and shaped and hammered nuggets of the pure material in its cold state. Later, they learnt more sophisticated techniques and were able to smelt, refine, and cast shimmering artefacts such as knives and axes. Even the axe carried by Ötzi the iceman was made by the Mondsee smiths, who would have plied their trade along the waterways from their base in the Alps.
The evidence for the chain of events that may have caused such a disaster was discovered in early 2008, when a heavy storm knocked down hundreds of trees in the area. This exposed the underlying geology and revealed a site littered with large boulders, extending all the way down to the water’s edge and beyond.
The cliff face at the southern shoreline of Mondsee Lake is 150 metres high and over five kilometres long and must have broken off and plunged into the water. After weeks examining the area around the fracture zone a report was submitted estimating that the cliff collapse would have been in the magnitude of 50 million cubic metres of rock, and that a tsunami of at least five metres (16 feet) in height would have crashed against the opposite shore, inundating and destroying the settlements located there.
After a news report on the findings appeared in Der Spiegal in October 2008, Helmut Schlichtherle, Germany’s leading expert on lakeside settlements, commented that the theory of an Alpine tsunami was very exciting. Erwin Ruprechtsberger, an archaeologist in the Austrian city of Linz who specialises in the region, called the cliff collapse idea “a completely new approach that could solve many of the mysteries of the Mondsee culture.”
The Mondsee Lake is at the interface between enormous tectonic forces. The jagged Alpine limestone mountains of the Schafberg region of Tyrol on the southern shore presses against the soft rock of the Flysch region on the opposite side. The cliffs are pushed up, millimetre-by-millimetre, becoming increasingly steep until they are top-heavy and eventually break off. These extreme events, although quite rare, have happened in the region at various times throughout history.
An exodus trail
It is likely that a surviving population would, in all probability, want to move away from the area after experiencing such a traumatic event. Archaeologists know for a fact that the settlements were abruptly abandoned at around 3,200 BC, and that no people lived in the region for roughly another 1,000 years. But there has never been any solid evidence to suggest where they re-settled.
However, sickles made of Bavarian flint represent one of the main artefact types, unique to the Mondsee-Culture, and have turned up along the rivers Traun and Donau, right up to the region of Mühlviertel (81 km away from the centre of their culture). This discovery is concrete evidence that the survivors must have moved wholesale to a more secure region to the north-east.
The depopulation of both Mondsee and Attersee can be traced through the unique artefact technology that they took with them. In these places they met people of the Cham Culture, who had also left their original home in Bavaria, and intermingled to form a new society. However, only the typical artefacts show us that the people from Mondsee were ever there.
All images are (c) Alexander Binsteiner unless otherwise stated
Swierczynski, Tina, et al. “Mid-to late Holocene flood frequency changes in the northeastern Alps as recorded in varved sediments of Lake Mondsee (Upper Austria).” Quaternary Science Reviews 80 (2013): 78-90.
Kremer, K., Marillier, F., Hilbe, M., Simpson, G., Dupuy, D., Yrro, B. J., … & Girardclos, S. (2014). Lake dwellers occupation gap in Lake Geneva (France–Switzerland) possibly explained by an earthquake–mass movement–tsunami event during Early Bronze Age. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 385, 28-39. (FULL PDF)
Cite this article
Alexander Binsteiner. Chalcolithic catastrophe on the Mondsee. Past Horizons. July 05, 2014, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/07/2014/chalcolithic-catastrophe-on-the-mondsee